Tanith Lee remains one of my favorite authors for dark, decadent fantasy. This is one of her older stories.
Her name was Niemeh, or something along those lines.
She was sitting in a little lamplit cell off the hall. She wasn’t fettered, but a warrior stood guard beyond the screen, and there was no window. She had nothing to do except weave flowers together, and she was doing that, making garlands for her death procession in the evening. When Caiy saw her, his colour drained away again.
He stood and stared at her, while somebody explained he was her champion.
Though he got on my nerves, I didn’t blame him so much this time. She was about the most beautiful thing I ever hope to see. Young, obviously, and slim, but with a woman’s shape, if you have my meaning, and long hair more fair even than Caiy’s, and green eyes like sea pools and a face like one of the white flowers in her hands, and a sweet mouth.
I looked at her as she listened gravely to all they said. I remembered how in the legends it’s always the loveliest and the most gentle gets picked for the dragon’s dinner. You perceive the sense in the gentle part. A girl with a temper might start a ruckus.
When Caiy had been introduced and once more sworn by the sun to slay the dragon and so on, she thanked him. If things had been different, she would have blushed and trembled, excited by Caiy’s attention. But she was past all that. You could see, if you looked, she didn’t believe anyone could save her. But though she must have been half dead already of despair and fright, she still made space to be courteous.
Then she glanced over Caiy’s head straight at me, and she smiled so I wouldn’t feel left out.
“And who is this man?” she asked.
They all looked startled, having forgotten me. Then someone who had warts recalled I’d said I could fix him something for warts, and told her I was the apothecary.
A funny little shiver went through her then.
She was so young and so pretty. If I’d been Caiy I’d have stopped spouting rubbish about the dragon. I’d have found some way to lay out the whole village, and grabbed her, and gone. But that would have been a stupid thing to do too. I’ve enough of the old blood to know about such matters. She was the sacrifice and she was resigned to it; more, she didn’t dream she could be anything else. I’ve come across rumours, here and there, of girls, men too, chosen to die, who escaped. But the fate stays on them. Hide them securely miles off, across water, beyond tall hills, still they feel the geas weigh like lead upon their souls. They kill themselves in the end, or go mad. And this girl, this Niemeh, you could see it in her. No, I would never have abducted her. It would have been no use. She was convinced she must die, as if she’d seen it written in light on a stone, and maybe she had.
She returned to her garlands, and Caiy, tense as a bowstring, led us back to the hall.
Meat was roasting and more drink came out and more talk came out. You can kill anything as often as you like, that way.
It wasn’t a bad feast, as such up-country things go. But all through the shouts and toasts and guzzlings, I kept thinking of her in her cell behind the screen, hearing the clamour and aware of this evening’s sunset, and how it would be to die … as she would have to. I didn’t begin to grasp how she could bear it.
By late afternoon they were mostly sleeping it off, only Caiy had had the sense to go and sweat the drink out with soldiers’ exercises in the yard, before a group of sozzled admirers of all sexes.
When someone touched my shoulder, I thought it was warty after his cure, but no. It was the guard from the girl’s cell, who said very low, “She says she wants to speak to you. Will you come, now?”
I got up and went with him. I had a spinning minute, wondering if perhaps she didn’t believe she must die after all, and would appeal to me to save her. But in my heart of hearts I guessed it wasn’t that.